BNSF Explains Secretive Actions in Whitefish

By Beacon Staff

On Tuesday morning, representatives from Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway explained for the first time, following months of silence, their reasons for discreetly attempting to purchase properties in Whitefish’s railway district.

Speaking to a crowd of more than 30 city officials and property owners, many who were visibly frustrated, BNSF Vice President Charles Shewmake said his company has sought to purchase properties and withheld information in an effort to mitigate its legal liabilities, not because the company wants to avoid cleanup. He also made assurances that there are no health or safety risks posed by the toxic plumes.

“Whitefish is safe,” Shewmake said.

Among the officials present at the meeting were Gov. Brian Schweitzer and his staff, along with Whitefish’s City Manager Chuck Stearns, City Attorney John Phelps and Mayor Mike Jenson. Several other notable community figures and property owners also showed.

Shewmake and BNSF’s environmental director, Allen Stegman, explained that Montana has “unique litigation” conditions and their company wanted to avoid a similar outcome to a court case between the town of Sunburst and oil giant Texaco. In that $41-million lawsuit from 2007, the Montana Supreme Court ruled against Texaco for extensive gasoline spillage at its former refinery in Sunburst, north of Shelby.

But after looking into acquiring properties and factoring in the high appraisal rates, Shewmake said BNSF shifted gears. Experts hired by the company and officials from the state’s Department of Environmental Quality believe that the subsurface of the area is stable and thus the plumes are as well. Company officials want to move ahead with remediation.

Shewmake said the company has closed deals on three houses and has a couple more in the pipeline, but after that there will likely be no more. He said he doesn’t know what will happen yet with the purchased houses, but he tried to alleviate concerns that they will be abandoned.

“We don’t want them to be empty buildings where people go in there and drink 40-ouncers either,” Shewmake said.

It has long been known there are toxic plumes in the soil at BNSF’s fueling facility, caused by years of diesel and solvent seepage. The railway district neighborhood is adjacent to the fueling facility. But earlier this year, residents in the neighborhood began receiving calls from BNSF about purchasing their properties.

The company’s refusal to fully explain its actions led residents to wonder if – or to what extent – the plumes had seeped into their neighborhoods. Some worried about their health and the future of their properties. In May, residents hired a high-profile Billings attorney to test for contamination.

While many in the crowd expressed gratitude for Shewmake’s forthrightness on Tuesday, they made it clear that BNSF’s secretive dealings have left residents frustrated and facing significant economic dilemmas. The railway district is considered a foremost engine in the town’s future economic growth and a number of prominent entrepreneurs have set up shop there.

But the BNSF situation has put a halt to many plans in the district – potential tenants and business partners don’t want to move to a contaminated area where a large company is trying buy out the properties.

When asked what the company plans to do to erase the stigma the district has developed, Shewmake said the company is setting up a Web site that will explain the confusion of the past few months and make clear that the area is safe. The Web site will be called www.montana-remediation.info and should be live this week. Officials also are considering running ads in local newspapers to clear the air.

But several in the crowd wanted more. Mayor Mike Jenson said, since “actions speak louder than words,” BNSF should put the houses it has already purchased back on the market. He said that would “restore some credibility.” Rhonda Fitzgerald said the company should work closely with the city on the Web site. A Web site about pollution in the town, even if well intentioned, could be counterintuitive.

“You’ve literally killed that area and you have to do an awful lot more to regenerate that than run a few ads,” said Jan Metzmaker, director of the Whitefish Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Perhaps the most vital project to be stalled is Bill Kahle’s much-anticipated Conductor’s Row development on O’Brien and Railway avenues. Conductor’s Row is a mixed-use development with plans to integrate residential and commercial space.

In the past couple of months, however, potential tenants have changed their minds in response to BNSF’s actions. Kahle told BNSF officials at the meeting that, while he appreciates the company’s cooperation, he still intends to do his own toxicity testing of the site and hasn’t ruled out litigation.

“We either have a problem with contamination or the perception of contamination,” Kahle said.

Richard Opper, director of DEQ, said a new project manager has been assigned to the site and “there will be some testing this year.” There will also be tests to gauge the amount of leakage in Whitefish River. In the meantime, residents like Kahle will continue to explore their options.

“I don’t know if I can afford to hold my breath while the cleanup happens,” Kahle said.

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